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California Republicans are falling in place behind Trump

May 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be ready to endorse Donald Trump, but California House Republicans are falling in line to “support the nominee,” whether or not they can bring themselves to speak the real estate mogul’s name.

Trump is meeting with GOP leaders in Washington on Thursday, presenting a spectacle unprecedented in modern politics: The party’s leaders, including not just Ryan but former presidents and presidential nominees, refuse to endorse the man who crushed a primary field crowded with the GOP’s stars, rising and faded alike.

Many of the conservative intelligentsia see the endorsement as a breach of their principles, while political analysts look at polls and see Trump as an electoral disaster who will repel far more voters than he attracts.

For House members running their re-election campaigns, however, embracing Trump has become something of an inevitability.

“This is the process that we all signed on to, and all the candidates signed on to,” said Orange County Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a 14-term veteran who said earlier that late first lady Nancy Reagan would have been horrified by Trump’s antics.

Supporting the winner is “the honorable thing to do,” Rohrabacher said, and that, regardless of what Nancy Reagan might have thought of Trump’s decorum, “that was for the voters to judge, and they decided that, everything considered — including Donald Trump’s personality — they preferred Don Trump to the other candidates. My fellow Republicans should grow up and admit that we have to do what the voters want to do, and we’re not in control, the voters are.”

The top California House Republican, Majority leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, parted ways with Ryan on Friday and signed on as a Trump delegate. Former presidential contender Marco Rubio said Wednesday he would support Trump over Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Third-party option

Although the “Never Trump” conservative opinion leaders are still fantasizing about a third-party option, many lawmakers running for re-election are urging the party to unify.

Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista (San Diego County) labeled such voices “Beltway doyennes — the consultant and donor classes, established opinion writers, think-tank officials and other Washington wise men.” Issa had predicted earlier that Trump would be a “national Todd Akin,” alienating women the way the 2012 Missouri GOP Senate candidate did with his phrase “legitimate rape.”

On Monday, Issa called Trump “the obvious choice” for anyone who opposes Clinton.

Congressman Darrell Issa speaks with members of the media following his speech during the California Republican Party's 2017 Organizing Convention in Sacramento, CA, on Saturday February 25, 2017. Michael Short/Special to the Chronicle

‘Support the nominee’

A more common refrain on Capitol Hill, especially among vulnerable Republicans, is to say they will support the Republican nominee, without saying Trump’s name, even though all his challengers have left the field.

Butte County Rep. Doug LaMalfa said through a spokesman that he will “support the nominee.” Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, who has declined to comment on the presidential race because he chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said through his spokesman that he will “endorse whomever is named the official nominee at the convention.”

Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock (Stanislaus County), whose seat Democrats are targeting in a long-shot bid, tweeted weeks ago in a virtual town hall, “I will be supporting the Republican nominee.”

Some members are still holding out, including Rep. David Valadao of Hanford (Kings County), whose seat Democrats are also targeting, and Rep. Steve Knight of Antelope Valley (Los Angeles County), widely seen as the most vulnerable GOP House incumbent in California.

Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona (Riverside County) issued a statement saying he wants to discuss the issue with fellow Republicans to see “how we can unify as a party to defeat Hillary Clinton and maintain our majorities in Congress.”

Ryan an outlier

Ryan increasingly appears to be an outlier in Washington, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who along with top House and Senate Republicans is also meeting with Trump on Thursday, has endorsed the real estate tycoon as the top vote-getter.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, warned that Trump will damage anyone who endorses him, calling him “the political equivalent of Chernobyl. It’s not just a matter of losing this November's election. He’s capable of poisoning the political landscape for them for many years to come.”

Schnur predicted that the party will have to be rebuilt “around people who stood up to him.” Once the election is over, he predicted, “you’ll have an emerging generation of young voters who associate Trump with the Republican brand, and that’s a stain that’s not going to wash out for a long time.”

But with a new Quinnipiac poll this week showing Trump neck and neck with Clinton in several swing states, some Republicans are beginning to admire what one GOP lobbyist called Trump’s “animal feel for politics,” overcoming reservations many have about his flouting of GOP policy orthodoxy.

Trump’s positions on such things as trade, the minimum wage and national defense “just shows that we’re flexible,” Rohrabacher said. “The American people are looking for principles, yes, and the Republican Party certainly has that, but we are also looking for practicality, which implies flexibility,” adding that he thinks Trump will “attract people who have sat on the sidelines for decades.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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